A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 2007 Red Sox and how much that team meant to me. I also mentioned that, with it being the 10-year anniversary of that championship team, we’d be sprinkling in some memories from the season throughout this year. Well, literally nothing is going on in the world of the Red Sox right now, so there’s no better time than the present to continue the series. Since I am a notorious reliever lover, it only makes sense to have the first player-centric revolve around the best Red Sox reliever of my lifetime.
I speak, of course, of Jonathan Papelbon. Whereas the 2004 team had Kevin Millar and his brigade of Idiots and 2013 had Mike Napoli and the rest of the beards, 2007 had Jonathan Papelbon and....well, his absurdly over-the-top personality. We’ll get to that, though.
First, let’s remember who Papelbon was in the spring heading into that season. He was a former top prospect who, after being pegged as a rotation mainstay during his minor-league days, put up arguably the greatest season for any rookie reliever in league history. That led to plenty of debate as to whether or not he should stay in that role or shift back to the rotation. Obviously, we know what decision they ultimately made. We’ll never know how he would’ve performed as a starter, but it’s impossible to argue that the bullpen treated Papelbon mightily well.
This was particularly true in 2007. It was right in the midst of a dominant stretch, but one could make an argument that this was Papelbon’s finest season. In his 58-1/3 innings over 59 outings, the closer saved 37 games with a 1.85 ERA (257 ERA+!) with a 2.45 FIP and 2.85 DRA. The righty was utterly dominant, striking out a whopping thirteen batters per nine innings while walking just over two per nine. Perhaps most amazingly, he allowed only five home runs despite a ground ball rate of just 29 percent. He was the master of weak contact with that nasty fastball/splitter combo. Papelbon’s season was rewarded for his great regular season, making the second of four consecutive All-Star games as well as the DHL Delivery Man of the Year Award. For some reason, not only was the best reliever called a “delivery man” but they were sponsored by DHL, which is shockingly still a thing.
Of course, for as amazing as his regular season was, this wasn’t the point in which he became a legend. That transformation happened during the postseason. While it wasn’t Papelbon’s first taste of the postseason — he tossed four scoreless frames in the 2005 playoffs — it was his first in a major role. Things got off to a bit of a shaky start, despite him not allowing any runs. In his first three outings, which spanned the ALDS and the first five games of the ALCS, he allowed six base runners in 4-1/3 inning while striking out just three. After that, he turned it on to his regular season level and helped the Red Sox make their run towards the championship. He recorded at least four outs in each of his final four outings, which included Game Seven of the ALCS as well as the final three games of the World Series sweep. In those games, he totalled 6-1/3 innings and allowed just three base runners with no walks and four strikeouts. He recorded a save in each of those outings.
Papelbon did his jig on the field, and he’d do it again at the parade. He was a clown, but he was our clown. Relievers are always known to be a little bit crazy — at least those not named Mariano — and Papelbon was just following along that line. Obviously, the reputation of the 2007 folk hero has changed since then. Between lewdly gesturing at fans and choking Bryce Harper in the dugout, Papelbon is no longer such a lovable goof . Honestly, it’s gotten to the point where I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t look so fondly on his time here.
And yet, I can’t quite bring myself to that point. Papelbon was the best Red Sox reliever I’ve ever seen — yes, even better than Koji — and was the best reliever in baseball not named Mariano during his entire Red Sox tenure. That 2007 season was arguably his peak, and was exactly what you’d build if you wanted the perfect reliever. He had the power fastball, the death stare, the absurd personality, the entrance song and the knockout putaway pitch. There was a time that Papelbon was possibly on a Hall of Fame track, but that time has passed. Now, he’s a mostly embarrassing has-been who’s still looking for a team. Luckily, we’ll always have 2007 and we’ll always have his Irish Jig.